On June 19th, fifteen forestry, conservation, and agricultural professionals gathered at the U of M Southwest Research and Outreach Center in Lamberton, MN. This lucky gardener, from a plucky little non-profit in North Central MN with a mission in sustainability, was excited to be among them. We were all ready for a 3-day intensive workshop on agroforestry.
Agroforestry: Intensive land-use management that optimizes the benefits (physical, biological, ecological, economic, social) from biophysical interactions created when trees and/or shrubs are deliberately combined with crops and/or livestock.
Wow. What does that “University-ese” mean in layman’s terms? The managed use of trees and shrubs to achieve desired benefits in agriculture. Those desired benefits can be economic, environmental or social. (Is it a coincidence that these are also the 3 principles of sustainability?) Each landowner is going to have different goals and different ideas for measuring those goals.
The key word, however, in both my simplified definition and the university definition, is managed. Just like crops or livestock, trees and shrubs (known as “woodies” in the parlance) require management to realize the maximum benefits. Though there are key criteria to apply when determining and designing an agroforestry site, you can think simply “the right plant, in the right place, for the right purpose.”
The “Big 5” of agroforestry, in no particular order, are: alley cropping, forest farming, silvopasture, forest buffers (riparian and upland), and windbreaks. I now have to admit they are in a particular order, but it’s not an order of importance. The first two we use here at Happy Dancing Turtle, and the third we plan to implement in the next year. For this blog, I’m going to focus on these three.
Broadly, alley cropping is the planting of rows of woodies at wide spacings, creating alleys within which crops can be cultivated. The HDT demonstration farm is set up on contour, with a berm and alley design. The berms are planted in perennial crops, some asparagus and raspberries, but mostly fruit and nut bearing trees and shrubs, as well as forbs and grasses.. We grow annual vegetables in the alleys. We find a lot of benefit in this design, over and above the diversified food crops. It provides habitat and food for birds and pollinators, captures water and reduces soil erosion, implements our imperative soil health principles, and provides some shady spots for tired gardeners (hard to say which of those is my favorite).
Forest farming refers to non-timber forest products grown under a woody canopy. Foraging or wild harvest is not generally considered forest farming, as the cultivation practice is not intentional. Non-timber forest products include, but are not limited to: ramps, fiddlehead ferns, ginseng, and mushrooms. We grow shiitake mushrooms to include in our CSA and for our employee meals. The shiitakes grow on oak logs under a managed canopy of jack pine.
Silvopasture is the intentional integration of trees, livestock, and forage. When well managed, silvopasture can reduce animal stress by providing shade and shelter, which means better weight gain and increased farm profitability. At HDT, we are working on “The Shady Chicken Project.” Did you know chickens evolved in the forest? In order to express its full chickenness, a chicken doesn’t just need access to the outdoors, but also enough room to scratch for bugs and tall plants to provide shade and shelter. By grazing chickens under hybrid hazelnuts and other woody crops, we hope to create an economically and ecologically viable silvopasture operation.
Applicable at all scales, all the benefits of agroforestry are hard to define, but here’s the short list of the benefits for just the three practices I’ve highlighted: diversified farm income, improved soil health and water quality, reduced erosion, enhanced habitat (for wildlife/livestock/people)…which all translate to a more sustainable operation and a more resilient landscape.